Off Brand

Companies Are Trying to Plan for 2 Different Futures Right Now

And it’s impossible

Rob Walker
Published in
4 min readMay 21, 2020
Illustration: Guillem Casasus

Companies spend a lot of time and effort on gauging the future. That’s how they make decisions, and explain those decisions to investors. But as the full, cataclysmic implications of the coronavirus pandemic set in, scores of public companies across all sectors of the economy — from United Airlines to The Gap to Twitter to Shopify to Abbott to ConocoPhillips — rescinded the revenue and earnings “guidance” they usually offer Wall Street. Rather than offer a new outlook, many have withdrawn from projections altogether — conceding, in effect, “We have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen; your guess is as good as ours.”

It wasn’t just public companies. The same thing was happening within businesses at every level of the economy. From your hair salon or local bar to Silicon Valley tech firms to startups around the country, small businesses to mass chains, all were confronted with real-time decision-making. Some laid-off workers, some scrambled for loans or other financial relief; many took actions (like closing offices) that felt temporary at the time, but feel less so now.

We’re now confronting the highly complicated process of “reopening.” It’s very different — and it turns out that it’s even harder than the decision to retrench, retreat, and shut down. Shutting down was a painful decision, but it became an escapable one. Reopening is harder because the murky future that seized up the economy isn’t settling into some new vision of what’s next. Instead, business is confronted by two visions of what’s next, each completely different from the other — and requiring a more or less immediate response.

It’s close to impossible to act on both these futures at once. As a rule, it’s tough to lean in and hang back at the same time.

In one near-term vision, we are beginning to turn a corner. The virus won’t disappear, but we are figuring out (Sweden-style?) how to manage it without a complete lockdown. Living in a new normal where businesses can serve as long as there’s enough plexiglass and six-foot overlays, where everyone is used to masks and waiting in well-spaced…